Lately I have heard and re-heard some very old writerly advice. It is this: Read. In other words, if you want to be a good writer, you need to read, and read a lot.
Now, I have a little bit of a superstition of sorts about this. Actually, I guess it’s not really a superstition, just a logical concern. I feel like when I write I will channel what I am reading. The last thing I want is to be accused of subconscious plagiarism, or to be accused of trying to write like some great author and–no doubt–failing. I want to make sure that my voice is my own voice.
It’s a legitimate concern because, if you know me, I am impressionable, at least in the inconsequentials. (I am very stubborn about the consequentials, like morals and goals, etc.). Down to my voice; when I speak with someone with a particular accent, I absolutely can not help starting in on the y’alls or the bloodies or the head bobbles.
But I think that this is part of what would make me a good writer, correct? If I can subconsciously take all the great parts of great writing and filter it through my own experiences and my own voice, then that would be a book to read. It’s like how I am fairly good at interpreting fashion or determining cultural trends; I am very intuitive, at heart. So while I would never intentionally steal a line from another book, I just discovered–a little to my horror–that the line in Benevolent (“‘You two are so knotted up together it would be nearly impossible to extricate either one in one piece,'”) came from all the times Jay Kesler said something about he and his wife having been together so long they were like two trees whose branches were indecipherable one from another, which probably came from a seriously famous quote from Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (the book; “Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two”).
Okay, so that’s not that bad. It could just be a similar idea expressed by three out of billions of people. But it felt too close for comfort. Even though I’ve never read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
And despite my concerns (legitimate or illegitimate), I am going to take the challenge. I’m going to make it a lifetime goal to keep reading. Now, one of my biggest problems is finding a good book. You would think it would be easy, but I have the hardest time, especially when I have just read a good book and don’t want to risk bad literature. So, I have recently unearthed a giant list of “best” books that I compiled (from various sources) several years ago, updated it (all the way to 2012) and put it in a spreadsheet: and now I am going to read my way through it. Or at least for a good, long time. I will review the books right here on The Starving Artist (as it seems people really like reading book reviews).
As of right now, the list is over 800 books long, so I have sorted them randomly (thanks, computer) to determine my first five. They are a crazy bunch. The whole list includes general fiction, novels, some kids and YA, literary, philosophy, religion, historic, contemporary, and influential titles. Therefore, I am starting with Johannes Kepler’s The Harmony of the World (or Harmonies of the World). We go from there to Purpose-Driven Life (Warren), The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner), Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (Newton), and Sybil (Disraeli). And I am going to really try my best to finish each one and see what other readers love about each book. (Unless it’s too technical. Then I reserve the right to observe and report, as opposed to go line by line.) I also anticipate that I may want to take little trails off of a particular author. I reserve that right as well. Julia Alvarez may warrant a re-read of Yo! or Edith Wharton to Ethan Frome, neither of which are on the giant list. Now, I can never say I don’t know what to read next.
Wish me happy reading, and here’s to following good advice!